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What Do Top Model and Hard Core Porn Have in Common?

What do hard core porn and reality show, Top Model, have in common? Hard core pornography often gets the viewer off on women’s suffering. So does Top Model.

In the first episode the models underwent Brazilian bikini waxes on camera. As Jennifer Pozner described it, “Cameras flitted back and forth from their pained facial expressions to their nearly nude legs spread wide in the air, while the audio lingered at length on the models’ blood-curdling screams as hot wax was spread over their genitals and their pubic hair was ripped off.”

The only thing missing was the close-up.

Pozner went on to describe how contestants have been asked to drop from platforms onto surfaces with little cushioning, or to sit on ice sculptures in freezing temperatures. One model was asked to pose in a pool of icy water – shaking, shivering, and begging for a break – until her body began to shut down from hypothermia and she was rushed to a hospital.

If pain and suffering isn’t imminent, models are asked to act as though it is, coached to look “scared! Something’s chasing you! Something’s coming to get you!” Scared, “but pretty,” that is.

Host, Tyra Banks, has also asked models to act like they are in pain: chest pain, fingers slammed in a door, strangulation… A signature pose was suggested for one model, “Look like you’re getting punched.”

Beautiful, sexy women in fear and pain. All reminiscent of hard-core pornography: In the popular video, “Two in the Seat #3,” an actress is asked by an off-camera interviewer what will happen. She replies, “I’m here to get pounded.” In other pornos women are hit or raped. Too-large objects are inserted as actresses scream out. Sometimes pain is registered in penetration. Even when suffering isn’t purposely placed in the script, directors don’t bother to edited it out, suggesting viewers’ taste. More and more, the new edge in porn involves cruelty.

I worry about a society that develops a taste for women’s torment. Or for anyone’s distress. As pain becomes eroticized, some develop a desire for their own suffering. My students sometimes talk of getting turned on by a little D/s in the bedroom. This is no surprise. We’re so bombarded with eroticized images of dominance that I suspect few in this culture fail to get turned on by it.

Still, depending on how far it goes, violent sex play can lead to broken skin, bruising and infections, even as the point of pain is to warn us away from doing what it is harmful to the body.

We worry about women being battered. Should we worry when women come to crave their own abuse?

And, surrounded by images of eroticized dominance and violence, and sexily submitting to such acts, does male domination, itself, become sexy?

First posted on November 22, 2010 by

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Miss Representation: Girls are Pretty, Boys Are Powerful

Powerful Man                                              Pretty Woman

Girls get the message that what’s important is how they look. And boys get the message that what’s important about girls is how they look. That’s one of the observations made in the film, Miss Representation.

Girls and boys both buy into this belief system. And then boys become men, step into power, and perpetuate a social order that favors them. Most CEOs are male, most of Congress is male, most publishers and editors are male, and we’ve never had a female President of the United States. Girls become women and go with the flow, too. Yes, there are many exceptions. But these large patterns remain.

Our world incessantly whispers – or shouts: women are more body than brain. Women are emotion, not rationality and action. Women are sex.


And sex sells, they say. Sex sells products. Sex sells the message that women are all about sex.


Now add demeaning and violent images.

The message: men are powerful, and better than women.

And when women try to move out of the box to gain power?

Well look what happens on conservative networks like Fox, where men dress conservatively while female anchors wear plunging necklines, short skirts, and say things like, “Hillary Clinton looked so haggard and, like what? 92 years old?!” Or Greta Van Susteren asks VP candidate, Sara Palin, whether she has gotten breast implants. When women aren’t co-conspiring, Rush Limbaugh complains that no one wants to see a woman age in office.

Even when women do become powerful a headline runs, “Condi Rice, Dominatrix.”

Condi Rice, dominatrix

Condi Rice, dominatrix

Perhaps alongside an ad for a nutcracker shaped as Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton nutcracker

Hillary Clinton nutcracker

Any wonder 51% of Americans are women, but only 17% of Congress members are?

Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Miss Representation’s writer-director says this is unfortunate since research shows that:

The more diversity and more women you have in leadership, both in government and business, the greater the productivity, the creativity and the bottom line.


There’s this new transformative leadership that’s embracing empathy, collaboration, empowerment… those are more feminine qualities and those are now more associated with success in the global landscape than the traditional sort of command-and-control male leadership traits. So I think we’re going to start to see a shift.

Let’s stop misrepresenting women and their potential. We all lose out when the talents and vision of half our population are stifled. Women and girls are not less important than men and boys.

Newsom urges us to empower both young women and young men to create an equitable society together, making sure that girls are mentored and have a plenty of good role models.

And as Miss Representation points out:

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.

—   Alice Walker

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Chaz Bono, He’s Scary!

When Chaz Bono began Dancing With The Stars he got death threats and the show faced a boycott. Psychiatrist and Fox News commentator, Dr. Keith Ablow, told parents to bar kids from watching Chaz, as seeing him could cause youngsters to want a sex change. Girls might even want to cut their breasts off, he warned.

Despite all this – and not so snazzy dance moves — Chaz stayed popular for quite a while, being booted off the show only last week. No reports yet on how many girls have asked to sever their breasts.

Plenty of people think Chaz is pretty scary. He doesn’t frighten me. Why do some feel so menaced by the transgendered?

American Indians felt differently. Before European contact, if a biological female wanted to be a man, joining men in the hunt and war, that was fine. If a biological male wanted to take on a womanly role that was a-okay, too. Among the Indians, the transgendered were something special – having a foot in both gendered worlds – and so they presided over ceremonies of major life transitions: birth, marriage and death.

But those American Indians were egalitarian, whereas homophobia and trans-fear come out of patriarchy, suggesting a clue to the anxiety’s source.

Under patriarchy, men are deemed superior. So a lot of effort goes into proving manhood and worthiness for that exalted status. If a woman can so easily become a man, how superior are males, really?

How much call do men have to head homes? To take charge? To sit at the front of the B110 bus in Brooklyn? To enjoy male privilege? If women can become men, the patriarchy falls apart. And for many men, so does their self-worth.

If a man feels self-secure he won’t be threatened by women’s equality. And he won’t be so frightened by the likes of Chaz Bono.

And sure, in a culture where people rarely see the transgendered, they can feel anxious in their disorientation.

But by strutting his stuff for all the world to see, and by being proud of who he is, perhaps Chaz will help other transgendered people to feel more secure and accepted.

Love over hate and fear.

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Men, Women React to Male/Female Nudity

By Lisa Wade @ Sociological Images

We’ve all heard the truism “sex sells.”

But whose sex is sold?  And to who?

If it was simply that sex sold,

…we’d see men and women equally sexually objectified in popular culture.  Instead, we see, primarily, women sold to (presumably heterosexual) men.  So what are we selling, exactly, if not “sex”?

What is really being sold is men’s (presumably heterosexual) sexual subjectivity: the experience of being a person in the world who was presented with images that were for his titillation.  Women do not live in the world this way.  They are not exposed everyday to images that legitimize their lust; instead, the images teach women that they are the object of that lust.

In light of this, Sociologist Beth Eck did a series of interviews attempting to tap into what it felt like for men and women to look at male and female nudes.  Her findings were pretty fascinating.

First, she asked men and women to look at naked images of women, including this one of Cindy Crawford:

Women viewing images of female nudes almost inevitably compared themselves to the figure and felt inadequate.   Said one women:

…the portrayal of these thin models and I just get depressed… I’m very hard on myself, wanting to be that way.

Women ended up feeling bad whether the model conformed to conventional norms of attractiveness or not.  When looking at a heavy set woman, they often responded like this:

I am disgusted by it because she is fat, but I’m also… I need to lose about 10 pounds.

I don’t necessarily find her body that attractive… Her stomach looks like mine.

Men, in contrast, clearly felt pandered to as holders of a heterosexual male gaze.  They knew that the image was for them and offered praise (for a job well done) or criticism (for failure to live up to their expectations).  About Crawford they said:

Personally I think she is attractive.

I like that.

Both men and women, then, knew exactly how to respond to female nudes: women had internalized their object status (women as sex object-things) and men had internalized their subject status (men were people looking at sexy objects).

Eck then showed them male nudes, including this one of Sylvester Stallone:

Interestingly, both men and women felt uncomfortable looking at male nudes.

Men responded by either expressing extreme disinterest, re-asserting their heterosexuality, or both.  They did not compare themselves to the male nudes (like women did with female nudes), except to say that they were both male and, therefore, there was “nothing to see.”  Meanwhile, because men have been trained to be a lustful sexual subject, seeing male nudity tended to raise the specter of homosexuality.  They couldn’t see the bodies as anything but sexual objects for them to gaze upon.

In contrast, the specter of homosexuality didn’t arise for women when they looked at female nudes because they weren’t used to being positioned as lustful.  Eck explains:

When women view the seductive pose of the female nude, they do not believe she is ‘coming on to’ them.  They know she is there to arouse men.  Thus, they do not have to work at rejecting an unwanted advance.  It is not for them.

Many women also did not feel lustful when looking at male nudes and those that did often experienced lust mixed with guilt or shame.  Eck suggests that this may be, in part, a reaction to taking on the active, consuming, masculine role, something they’re not supposed to do.

Summarizing responses to the male nudes, she writes:

Men, over and over again, reject the seductive advance [of a male nude].  While some women welcome the advance, most feel a combination of shame, guilt, or repulsion in interacting with the image…

This is what it means to live in a world in which desire is structured by a gendered sexual subject/object binary.  That is, men are taught to be subjects who see women as objects, and women are taught to be objects.  It’s not just “out there,” it’s “in us” too.

This piece was originally posted in Sociological Images. A slightly edited version is
reprinted here with permission.

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Dear Facebook: Rape Is No Joke

by  @ The Ms Magazine Blog

According to Facebook’s terms of service, users are not permitted to post content that is hateful, threatening or incites violence. But it appears that, in the minds of the Facebook powers-that-be, pages that encourage rape don’t violate that rule.

For two months now, Facebook users have been campaigning for the site to take down several “rape joke” pages. The titles of these pages include such gems as “Riding your girlfriend softly, cause you don’t want to wake her up” and “You know she’s playing hard to get when you’re chasing her down an alleyway.” Hundreds of Facebook users have reported the pages as Terms of Service violations, and a petition at (see below) demanding their removal has received over 130,000 signatures. But Facebook has yet to take action. Dozens of pages advocating rape or violence against women remain on the site, many with tens of thousands of fans.

The defenders of these pages say that we need to lighten up. Learn to take a joke. Feminists are, once again, being humorless. We are making mountains out of molehills when we become outraged by such trivial things as pro-rape Facebook pages.

According to statistics, 17.4 percent of women in the U.S. have survived a completed or attempted rape, and that figure would likely be higher if  victims were not so often silent about their experiences. Yet we are not supposed to question what it means for us, as women, to live in a culture that dehumanizes us with acts of sexual assault (the vast majority of which are committed by men we know personally) and then dehumanizes us further by pointing and laughing at our victimization, belittling trauma with crude humor. This is the definition of rape culture: a society that upholds the conditions for sexual violence against women and treats this violence as an unchangeable norm.

Anyone who claims that a rape joke is just a joke does not understand how rape culture works. Just as racist jokes can only be found funny within a culture of racism, rape jokes could not exist outside of a culture of rape. When our society allows men to believe that having sex with a sleeping woman is not rape; that having sex with a girlfriend or previous sexual partner is never rape; that having sex with someone who is too intoxicated to consent or object is not rape; men are taught to feel entitled to these acts (and women are taught to accept them in silence). When our culture is casually permissive of sexual assault, it inevitably perpetuates more sexual assault.

It would be absurd, of course, to suggest that anyone goes out and  commits assault as a direct reaction to a Facebook page. But in reducing  sexual violence to nothing more than a joke, they reflect and  perpetuate the idea that women are objects to be used for the sexual  satisfaction of men. Countless seemingly small things work together to  uphold that kind of pervasive misogyny.

It would be naïve to imagine that the removal of these pages will in and of itself end rape culture. But that doesn’t mean the appropriate response is to simply accept them. Daunting as the task may be, the only way to end rape culture is to confront it.

Facebook is certainly not responsible for the prevalence of sexual assault in our society. But those in a position of power at Facebook are responsible for the choice they make to either condone or condemn the use of sexual assault as humor. Silence, as the saying goes, is acceptance. And Facebook’s refusal to take sexual violence seriously is exactly the kind of complicit silence that rape culture thrives on.

To sign’s petition, click here.

This piece originally appeared on the Ms. Magazine Blog

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Hit the Least Attractive Woman with an Egg

The women are blindfolded and lined up with bulls-eyes on their backs, waiting to be judged “least attractive” on an episode of Bachelor Pad.

Go ahead men, take a paint-filled egg and hit the woman you find least appealing.

With each strike the show’s host announces the intended target, and whether the shot was successful. Erica, on the far right, takes about half the hits. Some of the eggs are thrown pretty hard, but after taking her blindfold off and emerging a stigmatized canvass, Erica lamented,

Being hit by the eggs was painful, but emotionally it was more painful to have the guys say they’re not attracted to me. So now all the girls can feel more attractive than me… better than me.

You can see the video here.

What a way to treat another human being.

Mostly ignoring the women’s feelings, the men worried more about missing needed points. “I didn’t follow through. I kind of like ‘popped’ the egg, and it went right over her shoulder,” bleated one contestant.

A sadistic streak comes into view as the contestants blithely wound each other.

Mercifully, this summer series has ended. And discussing it now won’t serve to make the show more popular.

It should be said that the men took their turn as targets, too, but beauty-connected rejection is probably harder on women since they are taught that their looks measure their worth. Another sad commentary on our society.

Meanwhile, like most of us, egg-splattered Erica didn’t think to question our cultural beauty notions, even though they are not absolute, and change over time. As Gwen Sharp at Sociological Images observes:

In (Erica’s) attempt to defend herself she doesn’t question beauty standards, but refocuses them, pointing to another woman who is “way bigger” and not “that pretty.”

Ms. Sharp explains that this just reaffirms the idea that body size is a legitimate measure of attractiveness (bigger making you less attractive). The comparison also means that self-esteem “Must come at the expense of other women, with whom they are always, and inevitably, in competition,” she adds.

One of the hosts eventually came out to lend the appearance of humanity, saying, “Erica, every person here is beautiful” (measured by our cultural standard, of course).

Erica no doubt felt beautiful after that.

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Women as Bunnies: TV Falls Back

While the new fall television lineup is showcasing plenty of strong women – including Christina Applegate, Zooey Deschanel, Debra Messing, Chelsea Handler, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Kristin Chenoweth – there’s an undercurrent of anti-feminist backlash – which is oddly pitched as feminist.

We’ve got Charlies Angels, who are all wet within the first 15 minutes.

Pan Am offers a throwback to air travel’s “‘good old days’ when women didn’t sit in First Class, they just served men who did,” observed New York Times’ Maureen Dowd. Stewardesses strut, Stepford style, “Uniform in every sense of the word. Young, pretty, thin and unmarried, well-groomed and white-gloved… and offering blank smiles of compliance,” says Caitlin Flanagan at the Wall Street Journal.

Not unlike the bunnies who populate The Playboy Club, a show pitched as being all about female empowerment. That’s right. Scantily clad in painful costumes, living in a world where women seemingly exist for the sole purpose of arousing men and being ogled by them. But that’s not demeaning, the producers insist. They’re bunnies, not centerfolds – as though that marks an important difference. Meanwhile the bunnies nakedly play in a pool as men watch them “as if at SeaWorld, only much, much better.”

One observer asked, “Is there something just a little weird about women objectifying themselves (and other women) in the name of empowerment?”

Men are subject. Women, object. Men are human. Women are bunnies, who sometimes reemerge as sea life. Dowd quotes one TV producer describing it all as:

A hot fudge sundae for men: a time when women were not allowed to get uppity or make demands. If the woman got pregnant, she had to drive to a back-alley abortionist in New Jersey. If you got tired of women, they had to go away.

Female empowerment, indeed.

When The Playboy Club’s star bunny was asked at press conference how the show empowered women, she supposed, “It’s just chauvinistic to deny women their sexuality.” But does this show encourage women’s sexual enjoyment, or are they primarily objects in service of others’ desire?

Sold as female empowerment, the shows serve up a subversive message.

Still, the fact that these programs are even posing as feminist suggests we’ve come a long way, baby!

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Woman, Not the Sum of Flawed Parts

By Linda Bakke

Star Magazine. Full of faces covered by question marks, bodies sliced up. Women diminished to the details of their flaws, circled in bold. A dissection of celebrities’ body parts.

I was working as a receptionist at a hair salon when I discovered Star. I picked it up and paged through. It was awful. I could not put it down.

One article divulged a star’s “hairy secret,” detailing the frequency of her waxing regimen and suggesting her pubic area was overly hairy. A two page spread highlighted shameful “sausage fingers.” Another asked who had the worst toes.

It all oddly evoked the serial killers who keep articles – or worse, dismembered body parts – as trophies.

And what is the triumph here? A sensed superiority over the goddess’ faults as we lie in judgment?

And who can blame us? Their supposedly error-free bodies stress us out! Destroying them and their presumed perfection just might lift our spirits.

But maybe scrutinizing them only returns scrutiny to us, as the judgments tell us we must correct our own “blemishes,” whether buttocks, breasts, fingers or toes.

The message: women’s imperfections cannot be tolerated.

As we eat it up, we fail to see how we become victims, too, unconsciously nodding agreement that this treatment of women is acceptable.

While the pictures and text underline our preoccupation with facade over character, men’s bodily foibles are untouched by these tabloids. Who can imagine placing a man in such light?

Hopefully one day we will take on realistic and healthy expectations so that women will no longer be seen as the sum of flawed parts.

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Men Are Naturally Attracted To Unnatural Women

Ask a guy why he looks at porn and he’s likely to say that men are just naturally attracted to women. But the women in porn don’t look too natural.

Actually, women in fashion magazines and billboards don’t look too natural, either.

Women and men both learn to admire a feminine ideal that ends up frustrating both men and women.

Most women have to starve themselves to be ideally skinny. Many models are so thin that they have stopped menstruating. Isn’t the natural instinct to stay alive and well?

And how about fake breasts? If men are naturally drawn to breasts, why do so many women go under the knife and mutilate themselves so that men – and society – will find them attractive?

Then there’s the preference for blondes. Few women past puberty are true blondes. But unnaturally bleached hair is the top color of choice, both for men and for women who want to look beautiful. Well, at least peroxide doesn’t require enormous amounts of money or risk much bodily harm.

So models go through all their pain and suffering, but it’s not quite enough. Next, the malnourished, plastic-chested, bleached out images go to be photoshopped and airbrushed to look even more fake than they already are.

So women try in vain to match ridiculous notions of beauty. Then get depressed because nothing they do seems to work.

But the models don’t look like “themselves,” either!

At the same time, male students have told me that all this hurts them, too. “What’s wrong with me?” they wonder. “Why can’t I get women who look like THAT?”

Well, those “picture perfect” women don’t actually exist.

So women can never achieve the ideal. And men can never have the ideal woman.

Meanwhile, men are left feeling “naturally” attracted to something that isn’t natural.

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Virtually Attack Women, But No Nudity

A gamer creates an avatar resembling himself and plots to kill a three-dimensional, lifelike woman. The avatar grasps an axe and raises it to strike. He hears the thud as the axe slices her head. He hears her cry out in pain. He sees her split skull and feels the sensation of blood on his hands and face.

I’ve just paraphrased one part of Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Alito’s opinion on whether video games of this sort should be protected as free speech in sales to minors. Yes, he uncomfortably concludes.

In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer wonders why Playboy is off-limits to thirteen-year-olds, yet interactive games that allow those same boys to actively, if virtually, bind, torture and kill a woman are perfectly fine – so long as she’s not topless.

Justice Antonin Scalia counters that violent scenes have long been part of the American tradition.

True enough. One Super Bowl Sunday America went ballistic over Janet Jackson’s exposed nipple. Justin Timberlake’s choreographed battering beforehand went unremarked. No nudity on the national networks, but Law & Order: Special Victims Unit weekly dwells on the rape, battering and torture of sex victims.

Developmental psychologist James Prescott looks to America’s preference for sexual violence over sexual pleasure with wonder. “Apparently, sex with pleasure is immoral and unacceptable, but sex with violence and pain is moral and acceptable,” he reflects.

But why?

New York Times columnist, Timothy Egan sees prudery at base. “Ultimately, the back-and-forth by the high court reinforced the notion of a nation that will always be a little skittish about sex, while viewing violence as American as apple pie,” he writes.

Naomi Wolfe’s The Beauty Myth adds insight. In the 1960s pornography portrayed beautiful women playfully and joyfully enjoying sex. By the 70s this sort of imagery suggestively seeped into popular culture.

As Wolf described it, mainstream beauty pornography looked like this:

The woman lies prone, pressing down her pelvis. Her back arches, her mouth is open, her eyes shut, her nipples erect. The state of arousal, the plateau phase just preceding orgasm… for Triton showers, a naked woman, back arched, flings her arms upward… for Opium perfume, a naked woman, back and buttocks bare, falls face down from the edge of the bed… The reader understands that she will have to look like that if she wants to feel like that.

But later, something shifted as beauty pornography was replaced by a glorification of violence against women. Again Wolf highlights the imagery in advertisements, which sound very much like those we see today:

In an ad for Obsession perfume a well-muscled man drapes the naked, lifeless body of a woman over his shoulder… In an ad for Hermès perfume, a blonde woman trussed in black leather is hanging upside down, screaming, her wrists looped in chains, mouth bound.

By the 80s violent sexual imagery centering on abused females had surged. Film titles like Dressed to Kill, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and 9½ Weeks filled movie theaters while female corpses, in sexy bras and panties, piled up in thrillers. By ‘89 The New York Times was discussing sadomasochism in kids’ comics.

Why the shift? Wolf maintains that sexual imagery follows politics. As women gained power as a result of the feminist movement, male anger and female guilt about taking power created a backlash. Something “needed” to be done, like socialize and eroticize male dominance.

On the one hand, depictions of women’s freely given and enjoyed sexuality was restrained. On the other, men were reassured that women weren’t so powerful. And everyone got the message that women were most attractive when they were dominated and powerless.

Wolf points out that court rulings have enforced these values from the top-down. Women taking pleasure in sex has been named obscene, while sexualized violence against them has not – so long as they are clothed.

Wolf makes an interesting argument.

Oddly, even as more and more women and men today have taken on values that support women’s equality, this way of seeing has become such a taken-for-granted part of American life that it has come to seem natural and normal to most of us, including many feminists.

Something to think about.

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